UPDATE: Meghann and I have published a follow-up post and podcast on this same topic, discussing some of the feedback we received on this post. The new content can be found here.
First I’d like to thank Travis and Peter for inviting me to participate in their blog, I am honoured to be asked and hope I can contribute something to the ongoing discussions on Obesity Panacea.
There are numerous barriers to physical activity and Travis and Peter consistently portray both the research and the practical considerations of these barriers in Obesity Panacea on a regular basis. These barriers are discussed at great length in both research and the media: the role of the built environment, cost, time, lack of facilities, attraction to television/computer/video games, poor parental modelling, physical education cuts, lack of appropriate sport teams, school policies, sport that is too competitive, lack of equipment, lack of transportation to physical activity pursuits, the list is endless.
The optimistic among us often suggest, despite the perpetual cycle of physical activity bad news (e.g. F grade for Physical Activity 5 years in a row on the AHKC report card), that if we “remove the barriers, the children will be active”. Will they? Do today’s children know “how” to be physically active? Do they actually possess the skills necessary? As part of a study I was conducting recently where 10-12 year old children were asked why they did not engage in physical activity and one little girl wrote “…I can’t play a lot of sports because I don’t know how.”
I would argue that even if we removed all the known barriers to physical activity, there is a significant possibility that the majority of children do not have the skills necessary to engage in physical activity.
The role of motor skills in child development has historically been studied by child psychologists or developmental specialists (e.g. Jean Piaget, Esther Thelen), not scientists interested in physical activity, obesity or public health. Physical education teachers have been teaching these skills (e.g. throwing, catching, hopping, skipping, jumping etc) for decades, but we rarely asked ourselves why it was important to learn how to skip or gallop. Why have we spent decades teaching these skills? The reason is what physical education teachers and coaches have always known- fundamental motor skills are the foundation for all physical activity.
How many people reading this blog know how to play Cricket? I don’t know how; and consequently, I don’t play Cricket. How about a Canadian example, how many people don’t know how to skate (shocking I know –but there are those of us who don’t)? How many people who don’t know how to skate go skating on a regular basis? What if we applied that argument to…..Catching a ball. How many sports are there that require catching a ball (any ball) in order to participate (football, baseball, rugby, lacrosse, basketball etc)? If a child couldn’t catch a ball, they are not likely to play any of those sports, hence reducing the likelihood of participation in these types of physical activities at all.
This premise is summed up in a concept known as the Activity Deficit Hypothesis. This idea has been more thoroughly studied in children with disabilities or children with movement difficulties; however, I feel it is applicable to the general population of inactive children. The premise is that in situations requiring movement, people with a higher degree of movement competence (better motor skills) are more likely to have a positive experience and are therefore more likely to engage in these physical activities. People who are less competent in their movement (less skilled) are more likely to experience a negative reaction to this type of situation and are therefore more likely to withdraw from the situation and avoid other contexts where they would have a negative experience, which in turn creates a cycle of inactivity and poor motor skills due to lack of practice (See Bouffard et al (1996), A Test of the Activity Deficit Hypothesis With Children With Movement Difficulties, Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly,13, pages 61-73).
What does the research tell us about the importance of fundamental motor skills? A recent systematic review on the topic found only 21 articles that met their inclusion criteria indicating that there is still a lot of research to be done. However, the results of the systematic review concluded that there is
“…strong evidence for a positive association between FMS [fundamental movement skills] competency and physical activity in children and adolescents. There was also a positive relationship between FMS competency and CRF [cardio-respiratory fitness] and an inverse relationship between FMS competency and weight status” (p. 1020, brackets added).
In other words, based on the best available scientific evidence: better motor skills is related to increased physical activity and physical fitness, and better motor skills are related to healthier body weights.
One might argue – “of course they’re related” – and that is exactly the point. However, I would strongly argue that motor skills are at the foundation, the core, without them children are not going to engage in physical activity which in turn will not improve physical fitness and in turn will have negative consequences for weight status.
I feel the need to talk about active gaming in the context of this blog on motor skills. I know Travis and Peter have both discussed exer-gaming on this blog and I want to reinforce the message that active gaming is not a replacement for skills in the real world; like Travis, I agree that active gaming is better than sitting still doing nothing, however beyond slightly increased energy expenditure and an entertaining dinner party activity I see no other benefits. Skills “practiced” during active gaming (e.g. tennis, boxing, yoga, badminton etc) just do NOT cut it.
For example, an 8 year boy old plays tennis on the Wii for several hours a day for several weeks. Eventually he “wins” the game/reached the highest level, became world champion or something of the sort and he thinks that he’s a great tennis player. One day someone actually invites this boy to go and play tennis outside on a court against a real opponent with a real racquet and a real ball. Imagine that, tennis in real life is nothing like tennis on the Wii….and this child experiences a significant “failure” experience. It is very likely that this child will never plays tennis in the real world again. If this pattern is repeated for all the different active games out there, this child will never want to play a sport outside of his living room. A very important caveat to mention is that I think active gaming is a unique and valuable opportunity, and is likely an untapped resource for children with disabilities and other special populations with mobility limitations. Active gaming can provide an extremely valuable context for motor rehabilitation and increased activity levels. But I feel strongly that active gaming should not replace real world movement experiences.
What’s the take-home message?
If we are going to improve the physical activity levels of Canadian children, we must first improve their motor skills because even if we are able to remove all the barriers to physical activity (in a perfect world); the children still have to actually be “able” to engage in physical activity.
I would remiss if I did not offer strategies for improving motor skills and so to conclude here are some suggestions, although it is by no means an exhaustive list:
- Active play (outdoors preferably) every day, for several hours/day
- Increased time in physical education (preferably taught by a PE specialist, every day)
- Enrol children in sports programs that participate in the new Canadian Sport For Life (CS4L) model: specifically Active Start and Fundamentals Programs
- Provide children early experiences in all environmental contexts: land, water, air, ice
- Reduce active gaming and increase time spent engaged in real sports
Dr Meghann Lloyd is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. Her work has focused on the interaction between motor development and physical activity in children with and without disabilities.
To get future posts delivered directly to your email inbox or to your RSS reader, be sure to subscribe to Obesity Panacea.